Having recently experienced War Horse, that British megahit from the National Theatre, I was eager to see the Bristol Old Vic’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which stopped at ArtsEmerson in Boston earlier this month on a U.S. tour. The common denominator? South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which created the lifesize steeds for War Horse and here was responsible for the midsummer fairies and more.
Compared to the intricate architecture of War Horse’s majestic stallions, Handspring’s creations for this Dream are homespun. And so is Tom Morris’s production, which is set, well, in a theater, really. The stage of Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre was cluttered with props, workbenches, ladders and other backstage paraphernalia, from which artistic jumble the play emerged.
A company of 12, mostly young, Brits performs it, all but the four actors playing the young lovers doubling and tripling roles. In fact, three of them play one character, Puck—or rather, they create “that merry wanderer of the night” by picking up a wicker basket, four hand tools and an oil can to embody the sprite’s body, limbs and head, and have him dancing and dissolving in midair.
Other Handspring inventions include Oberon, the fairy king—an actor holding a plaster mask in one hand and a fully articulated arm and hand in the other—wooden birds with flapping wings, soaring on the ends of long poles (a device borrowed from War Horse), a collection of rough-hewn planks that, in the ensemble’s hands, represent the ever-moving enchanted forest, and two epic-size figures formed from hoops of bent wood for the reunion of the fairy king and queen in the finale.
Simon Annand photo
The visual style, of the costumes as well as the set, is what you might call scruffy modern. Duke Theseus wears an armored motorcycle jacket, the lovers favor torn-denim chic and the “horny-handed men” who perform the “Pyramus and Thisbe” playlet are a collection of dirty-overalled laborers. These “rude mechanicals,” by the way, really are rude, in the sense of smutty. That climactic play-within-a-play is not only one of the wittiest I’ve seen, but also the coarsest. And this is certainly the first time I’ve seen a literal interpretation of the lead thespian’s name, Bottom, and the fact that he’s magically turned into an ass.
This *Dream invites comparisons to the version Julie Taymor unveiled in New York last fall, and they’re almost all invidious. The Lion King’s creator conjured some stirring stage images, including Puck riding a bed up into the sky (a dream, get it?), Bottom nesting with Titania in a billowing cloud of fabric, and puppet deer and other forest creatures—her puppetry invoking the natural world where Handspring’s represents the supernatural. But Taymor failed to knit her visions into a coherent whole, and didn’t even bother to forge a consistent acting style among her often mismatched cast. Handspring’s humbler and wittier images, together with Morris’s well-meshed ensemble, make this Dream as fresh and convincing a rendition of the perennial favorite as any I’ve seen.
Okay, one niggle. The show falters at the end, when one of its strokes of brilliance is pushed too far. In “Pyramus and Thisbe” the part of the lion is played by the shyest of the would-be thespians, who protests he’s “slow of study” but is reassured that his part demands “nothing but roaring.” Here, he’s played as a recent immigrant from India who speaks practically no English, thus his hesitancy to take on a speaking role. Saikat Ahamed’s performance as the eager but generally baffled young man is hilariously touching. But at the end of the play—in lieu of Puck’s famous epilogue—the actor, and by implication the character, is called into service as the Indian boy over whose custody Oberon and Titania have been feuding—an interpolation that’s both gratuitous and obscure.
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